The oldest manipulation tool in the world

  • Reading time:11 mins read

How you are fooled with candy and smoothies

Photo by Shane Devlin on Unsplash

There are books that promise to teach you to manipulate other people. They have creative names like Manipulation by Daniel Spade, Manipulation by Martin Pete, Manipulation by Jacob Greene, Controlling People by Patricia Evans, The Psychology of Influence by Robert Cialdini.

I will not argue that manipulation does not exist. Or that these books are useless. We manipulate each other all the time. It is a core dimension of human interaction. And you can learn to become better at it.

Besides the fancy techniques and complex theories, there is manipulation going on right under our noses. In every day life we manipulate, intentionally and unintentionally.

This newsletter is about the most ignored tool for manipulation: food.

I will deconstruct 3 examples of manipulation through food:

  1. Giving candy is social cheating
  2. Smoothies are social signaling
  3. Buying expensive food can be seduction

Food might not seem like a method to manipulate, yet it is used that way daily. People use food to manipulate you. You use food to manipulate other people.

Does it sound outrageous? You might think I might be tripping. Maybe I ate something bad and it went to my head.

Or maybe I am on to something.

Some frequent occasions of manipulations through food are:

A colleague bringing cake for his or her birthday to work.

A guy buying dinner for his date

Posting on Instagram with your smoothie

Wearing a dress with fruit pattern on it

Sharing your chips with a friend

Grandparent giving candy to their grandchildren

All of these innocent acts are manipulation because food is extremely emotional to us. We have had a close relationship with food throughout history. It has been at the core of human survival.

It’s dramatic to die falling off a cliff or eaten by a tiger. But the reality is the greatest constant threat to survival throughout Homo Sapiens history has been the absence of sufficient food.

Until the Industrial Revolution, most people spent most of their time and effort to procure sufficient food. They grew it, hunted it, made money to buy it. The job of most people was food.

The procurement of food became a celebration. Sharing it became a deep act of community. This is why all holidays and celebrations involved eating with people close to you.

Gifting became became a valuable offering, and an act of manipulation.

1. Giving candy is social cheating

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It’s sweet for grandparents to give candy to their grandchildren. We think it’s sweet. Yet in reality that candy is actually harmful to the kids. Regardless of how toxic you believe sugar is, you cannot argue that it is in any way beneficial. At the best, giving candy to children creates a sugar-eating habit which will be harmful in the future.

So why do we think it’s a good thing when grandparents give candy?

Sugar was literal gold to our ancestors.

Because food is so valuable, it has been used as social coin since before we were Homo Sapiens. Giving food is a gesture of appreciation, love, friendship, kindness, generosity. Sweet food in particular has high value because sugar is extremely scarce in nature.

Giving fruit to hunter gatherers is like giving a diamond necklace to a gold-digger or giving a million likes to an aspiring influencer.

Sugar was literal gold to our ancestors.

Now we have more sugar than we should. It’s cheap and it’s everywhere. It’s like we are Scrooge McDuck diving in pools of gold.

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We all take advantage of this free gold to gain reputation in the eyes of others. Giving candy is easy and cheap. A candy bar is a little over a dollar. But to the unconscious of the receiver, it is precious. At a deep level, that small candy feels like a lifeline to survival. In the past it would have significantly increased the receiver’s chances of survival.

Reciprocity is hard coin in human relationships.

This hidden value makes candy giving an asymmetrical exchange. The giver makes a disproportionately small effort compared to the gratitude and favor gained from the receiver. This is a hard coin in human relationships.

Reciprocity is one of the founding pillars of civilization. It is deeply ingrained in our psyche. So whenever you can give something that has exaggerated perceived value, you do so because you gain a lot through future reciprocity and favor.

This makes sugar a cheat code. You give something that has little cost to acquire but has hidden high perceived value to the receiver. Candy giving is what Nassim Taleb calls in Skin in the Game an asymmetrical exchange: you get more than you give. Asymmetrical exchanges are how you cheat and win in life.

This is why we all give candy as gestures of appreciation, love, favor, kindness.

Based on this insight, what would you make of grandparents giving candy to grandchildren?

A supremely cynical view is that they are gaining favor to secure care from their grandchildren in the future. I am not saying grandparents think of this when they do it. Rather that it might have contributed to the birth of this custom. Maybe grandparents in the past who gave candy to their grandchildren (for selfish or selfless reasons) were cared for more than grandparents who did not. This led to the appearance and perpetuation of this custom. Now it is something that we as a society believe grandparents do.

And of course, it’s also love. Giving something with a high perceived value need not be selfish. It can be a selfless act of love.

Leaving aside family ties, sweets are given and received often in our society. Behind the seemingly sweet gesture of giving candy there is social arithmetic of personal gain developed throughout millennia.

2. Smoothies are social signaling

People consider smoothies to be health food. They are trendy because they are considered healthy, yet taste good. In fact they are social signaling devices with mostly negative impact on your own health.

Let me explain.

First the health perception. Smoothies are advertised as healthy because they are made of vegetables and fruits. They are the product of the erroneous oversimplification: ‘If vegetables are healthy, then the more I ingest, the better.’ This is obviously false. But it plays to our unconscious bias towards more food and more everything. You eat junk food. You cannot un-eat it. So you eat something seen as healthy to compensate. It does nothing to reduce the negative impact of the junk food, it only assuages your guilt.

Once the health perception sets in throughout the society, the respective product becomes a social signaling device. Most people believe that smoothies are healthy. If you make people aware that you consume smoothies, then you signal to them that you are the type of person that eats healthy. This has virtuous connotations in our culture. It shows strength of character and willpower. It also signals a healthy body. All of these are desirable traits.

More than the perceived health benefit, people eat smoothies to show to other people they eat healthy. The social reputation is the real benefit here.

When you consume a food for reputation, it becomes a manipulation device. You are manipulating others’ image of yourself through the food you consume.

Of course, we do this image manipulation in many ways. Many are obvious, like clothing, makeup, explicit signaling. Many others are implicit. Much of our behaviour has the goal to manipulate how others see us. This is the basis of branding and marketing. It’s a powerful factor in all your decisions. How many people go on vacation in a specific place for the Instagram pics rather than the experience itself?

Food is a deeply hidden way to manipulate image. What you eat signals others information about yourself. If you eat fast food, it is a potential indicator you don’t care about yourself that much. If you eat only vegan, you are associated with being morally good, care for the Earth and maybe are somewhat weak. Drinking smoothies signals something similar, but more toward discipline and health.

Second aspect: in fact smoothies are mostly negative for your health.

Smoothies are harmful in two ways. First comes from the tendency to contain a lot of fruits. After being put through a blender, fruits are mostly sugar. So a smoothie can have high amounts of sugar in it.

Why don’t more people make smoothies without fruits? Because they taste bad. Make a smoothie out of nothing except kale and cauliflower and you will understand. This makes most smoothies akin to fruit juice or soda with added vegetable matter.

The other reasons smoothies are harmful comes from their liquid nature. There are few natural liquid foods. Milk is the main one. Humans are abnormal in the animal kingdom for drinking milk as adults. This is an adaptation that we have developed recently from a biological perspective. And it is only present in peoples with a long history of raising livestock and drinking its milk. Europeans have good lactose tolerance while Asians do not because they have not been drinking milk for millennia. An estimated 90–100% of adults in East Asia and 80% in Central Asia have an impaired ability to digest lactose. By comparison only 2% of people in Denmark are in this situation.

Because liquid food is practically absent in nature for humans, we are not adapted to it. That is not to say we get sick from drinking orange juice. But rather that we have not developed regulatory mechanisms for liquid food.

Liquid food has a lower satiety effect than solid food. Most research on it confirms this leads to higher food intake in relation to the consumption of liquid foods. This study shows hunger is higher after liquid food versus solid food, confirming the lower satiety.

One possible objection is that most liquid food today is high in sugar. This study compared candy with soda, of equivalent calories. It found that candy eaters consumed less food overall compared to soda drinkers.

This study went deep and measured various physiological responses to liquid versus solid, including the psychological effects. Two results stand out. One is that ghrelin, the so-called hunger hormone, which is suppressed after meals, was less suppressed by the liquid pre-meals in the study. Two is that just thinking about liquid food increases appetite. The study found that thinking about food in liquid form increases both perceived hunger and measurable physiologic indicators such as the rate in which the stomach empties and the levels of hormones that affect appetite.

3. Expensive food can be seduction

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In dating and seduction people use food to manipulate both through reciprocity and manipulation of self image.

Self image

The stereotype dinner date is the man eats a big steak and the woman eats a salad. With the steak the man is signaling he is strong, vigorous and virile. With the salad, the woman is signaling she is slim, self-controlled and delicate. Both attempt to enhance their gender specifics to impress the other that they have high reproductive value.

Reciprocity

Using food for reciprocity is prevalent in dating. It is a cliché for the man to buy dinner, or at least drinks, for their date.

Why? On one hand to manipulate image. It signals that the man is prosperous and generous. Someone with excess money and resources can give food to others. This signal increases the man’s perceived value because of this information.

On the other hand because paying for dinner uses reciprocity to manipulate. It creates a perceive obligation to reciprocate in some form. The most obvious desired reciprocation is sex. But it need not be as crude or direct. The reciprocation is more often being nicer to the man. This more positive attitude might lead to a more favorable dynamic of the interaction, which then might lead to sex down the line.

Many women are conscious of this perceived obligation if their date is buying them dinner. The fancier the dinner, the bigger the obligation. This is why some women refuse to accept it. They want to avoid doing something they would regret because of the burden of reciprocation.


Of course you could say you ignore the implied reciprocation. For all of these cases you can intend to not give in to the manipulation. Just ignore it.

But it’s much more difficult than you think. It’s hard to ignore hundreds to thousands of years of adaptations. Very very hard. You can try, but you will likely fail. It’s a better strategy to avoid the reciprocity obligation in the first place. There is less effort in buying a nice dinner than in overcoming human nature.


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